A dog’s communication systems are greatly ritualized, and have evolved specifically to avoid or cut off conflict. This has made dogs, as a species, very successful in terms of their numbers, variety, and adaptability. Things, however, can go awry when we humans misread the signals dogs send us, leaving them helpless to effectively communicate their feelings to us no matter how hard they try.
We cannot know or understand what dogs think and vice-versa. What we can do, though, is understand their body language, observe them carefully as we interact with them, and then respond appropriately.
“Speaking dog” is simple if you remember a few important rules, and has the added bonus of making any interaction with dogs more fun and safe – not to mention, the dogs you come into contact with will really appreciate it.
Types of Social Behavior
The types of social behaviors dogs demonstrate can be broadly grouped into the following two possibilities:
A dog uses distance decreasing behaviors to promote approach, play and continued interaction. A lumbering soft gait, relaxed body, and a relaxed face, where the muscles are loose, indicate the dog is encouraging interaction, as does a dog who is moving towards you or leaning into you. The dog may also offer you a paw or rub against you. Dogs who want to engage in play will demonstrate the “play bow,” a posture where the dog literally bows the front of his body so the front legs are parallel to the ground while the hindquarters remain in the standing position.
Distance increasing signals vary and can be easily misread. The signals many of us seem to have no trouble understanding are when a dog stands tall, making each part of his body appear as large as possible, with his weight on the front legs, displaying an upright tail and ears, and piloerection (i.e. the hair along the spine stands up/raised hackles). The dog may also vocalize (e.g. bark or growl). We seem to instinctively react to these signals and take them as the warnings they are intended to be. (See also the upcoming section on anxiety and stress for more on distance increasing signals.)
Misinterpreting Distance Increasing Signals
There are also a number of distance increasing signals we humans commonly misinterpret. These are the more appeasing behaviors dogs demonstrate. Dogs use these appeasement behaviors to make friendly encounters more predictable and to help them diffuse what they anticipate might be a hostile encounter if escape is impossible. These behaviors are a nonaggressive way to “cut off” conflict. When dogs display these behaviors, we need to recognize that this is their way of showing us they are unsure and a little scared.
You may see appeasement signals in one of two ways:
Passive appeasement behaviors are commonly misunderstood and are often labeled as “submissive.” Dogs displaying passive appeasement will present themselves in a recumbent position exposing the underside of their body. The dog’s ears are typically back and down against the head and the tail is often tucked between the upper legs. Sometimes the dog will expel a small amount of urine while he waits for the attention or the situation he perceives to be hostile to cease.
Dogs displaying active appeasement gestures are often incorrectly labeled as “excited,” “overly friendly,” or even “pushy.” They will often approach you with their whole rear-end wagging in a “U” shape allowing both their face and genital area to be inspected. They may be desperate to jump up and get “in your face.”
For humans, then, it is important when meeting and greeting dogs to be able to recognize if a dog is genuinely friendly and wanting to greet you, or if he is experiencing stress, anxiety or fear.
A dog in conflict will want to approach but at the same time is too scared or unsure of the outcome. His body language will vacillate between displays of distance decreasing behaviors and distance increasing behaviors. Interacting with a dog that is conflicted can be risky. If you make a wrong move and the dog cannot avoid the approach, then he may become aggressive. This is often the case with a “fear biter.” Many dogs who bite, bite out of fear. Our appearance and movement towards them is scary, and they bite as a last resort to encourage us to leave. Dogs whose bite is motivated from fear often display ambivalent, mixed signals. This means they are conflicted. They are torn between approaching and being scared so they will move back and forth in their communication. This conflict can be displayed very quickly and can result in nips and bites. When dogs are showing fear it is advisable to avoid sudden movements, and to allow the dog an escape route. Do not force the meet and greet by moving toward the dog, having the dog’s owner manipulate the dog into moving toward you, or trying to touch the dog in any way.
It is important that we recognize a dog’s cut-off behaviors. These are designed to end social contact. If, when greeting a dog, you do not recognize that he is scared or stressed, or you choose to ignore his signals and push forward with your approach, you are unfairly pushing him into a situation where he may feel he is only left with one option, and that is not a favorable option either to dog or human. In other words, he may feel he has no other choice but to bite.
When we get a little irritated we may tell somebody to “push off “or “cut it out.” If they don’t respond then we may speak a little more firmly and we may even shout at them. Our dogs cannot do this. They cannot explain or plead with us in English, or whichever language we speak. They can only use their canine communication system. It is up to us to understand and respond to this system so the dog does not feel threatened to the point where he escalates his warnings to a bite!
Dogs will typically give plenty of warning if they are uncomfortable with something that another dog or a person is doing. These warning signs may include a direct stare, a rigid face or body, a growl, a curled lip (this can be minimal and hard to spot) or “whale eye” (i.e. flashing the whites of his eyes, also known as half-moon eye). His ears may be flat against his head and he may have a closed, tense mouth. If you see any of these signals, stop what you are doing immediately and allow the dog to slowly back away. Be aware that dogs can make these signals extremely quickly, within mere seconds, and because of this it is not always easy to spot them.
Dogs are wonderful, social animals that love and need to be a part of our lives. But, like people, their personalities range from being social butterflies to wallflowers. Tailor your approach and greeting style based on whatever communications the dog gives you. Dogs are very clear with their intentions and emotions and respond accordingly to ours. Remember, our body language and approach speak much louder than our words as far as dogs are concerned. They are expert readers of our body language and nonverbal communication.
Specific Signs of Stress or Anxiety
Dogs often feel stressed or anxious in certain situations, and will give signs to indicate their discomfort. In such cases, there is a need for intervention to prevent pushing a dog to the point of biting, and to make sure your canine friend is happy and not feeling anxious. Some of the behaviors and signals in this section may also be mentioned in other areas of the book, but we feel they are too important to not speak to in more detail.
Please remember: It is a GOOD THING that a dog shows you that he is anxious or uncomfortable and gives you the chance to change the situation, rather than go straight to a bite. Here are some of the more subtle or commonly misinterpreted signs a dog may give when feeling stressed or anxious:
- One Paw Raised - This looks very cute but the dog who raises his paw is not happy and does not want to be petted or bothered. A raised paw is a sign that the dog is worried.
- Half-Moon Eye – Also known as whale eye, this is when the whites of the dog’s eye are visible. Watch for this one when kids are playing too rough with the dog, or are too noisy or close to him. It is a common expression in dogs that are being hugged. If you see the half-moon eye when children approach the dog or are interacting with the dog, it's time to intervene and give them all something else to do. The dog just wants to be left alone.
A dog may also vocalize his anxiety in the form of a growl, a tongue flick, looking away, yawning or by licking his lips. Never punish a dog for showing that he wants to be left alone by growling, leaving the area or demonstrating any of the more subtle signs highlighted above. If you punish a dog for growling, then you risk suppressing his warning system. If you punish a dog for not staying in a set place when he feels threatened by a child’s proximity, then you risk suppressing his warning system. When a dog’s efforts to communicate are ignored and he starts to feel more and more stressed, he may get to the point where he feels he can no longer rely on his warning system. In such cases, he may simply resort to biting without any of the initial warning signals.
Now if a dog is punished for trying to communicate his discomfort with any given situation, he will still feel exactly the same way about a child bothering him. However, he may now also feel he has no way to show it and no way out of the situation because he does not want to risk being punished. Be glad if your dog gives a warning and take steps to modify the behavior of the child, condition the dog to enjoy the child, and create private and safe spaces for both dog and child.
Other Signs of Anxiety.
- Tail between the legs.
- Tail low and only the end is wagging.
- Tail between the legs and wagging.
- Tail down or straight for curly-tailed dogs (husky, malamute, pug, chow chow, spitz-type dogs etc.)
- Ears sideways for an erect-eared dog.
- Ears back and very rapid panting.
Contact your local DogSmith who can help you understand what your dog is communicating